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A general view of Aleppo city in Syria on Friday, March 17 2006. (AP

Our source for this post is Abu Leila, by his own account a journalist living in Aleppo. Abu Laila (not his real name) writes about Syria’s war descending on his city. He also tells about the predicament of some ethnic and religious minorities in Aleppo and the surrounding regions of northern Syria.

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Abu Leila in Aleppo, July 27, 2012

Reports from online activists predict that the 4th brigade of the Syrian army – known for its brutality and headed by Maher Assad, the notorious brother of Bashar al-Assad – is heading toward Aleppo to fight the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions that took control of several areas of the city.

The FSA confronted the loyalist forces as they moved north from on Idlib and Hama. However, as of this writing, the 4th brigade is entering the city with all its weight. The next two days are expected to be the worst for us in the 16-month-old uprising. Any massive assault on Aleppo city might cause a humanitarian disaster that will dwarf Srebrenica or Rwanda.

The battle for Syria turns north

The city has been suffering shortages for many months. There is no fuel and no bread. Electricity and water are off in many parts. No public transportation, no garbage collection.

Now, the residents of Aleppo can hardly believe that their city has been transformed into a full-scale war zone in less than ten days time. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has become a scene of violent clashes in its streets and merciless shelling during the last few days.

A Free Syrian Army soldier patrols a major gate to Aleppo near the Turkish border on July 22, 2012. (Reuters)

In the last few weeks, several neighborhoods in the eastern part of the Aleppo, which is also the country’s major business center, have turned into hotspots of protests and dissent against the government. Many of these neighborhoods have embraced the Free Syrian Army (FSA) whose rebel units infiltrated the city a few weeks ago, declaring what they called “the final battle for Aleppo.” A similar wave took over Damascus a couple of days ago, but it was nearly crushed by government forces, or at least it was stopped temporarily.

“Christians are in a silent panic. Many want to leave the country but all foreign embassies and consulates are closed…” – Abu Leila in Aleppo

FSA members entered several neighborhoods in Aleppo, which were sympathetic to the uprising. Many young men from those neighborhoods – Salahuddin, Mash’had, Sukkari, Saif ad-Dawlah, Bustan al-Qasr, Sakhour, Sha’ar, Tareeq al-Bab, Masakn Hanano, Arqoub, Bab al-Hadid, and some parts of the city center near Saba’ Bahrat and the Old Market – joined the rebel army members in their fight against government loyalists.

Neighborhoods trying to avoid bloodshed

Not everyone is happy with the FSA and anti-government activists in their neighborhoods; it makes them the targets of heavy shelling and bombardment by the government. In impoverished Salahuddin, local community leaders desperately asked the rebels to move to another place to spare them the consequences of their presence around their homes. The rebels preferred to stay where they weren’t welcome, and soon all the blocks in that area were mercilessly shelled and destroyed by government heavy artillery, as was expected.

Christians are in a silent panic. Many want to leave the country but all foreign embassies and consulates are closed; they have no chance to get out, except for Armenians, who can get Armenian passports, or at least fly to Armenia without visas in worst-case scenario. However, economic and family issues prevent most Armenians from taking that step.

Most Christians cling to the government as the lesser evil, for they were provided with security and, more or less, equal rights as Syrian citizens under this regime. When they look at the opposition side, it is dominated by ultra-religious and conservative Islamic rhetoric. The FSA remains a main threat and source of fear for minorities; they noticed that most of the brigades and battalions are named after Muslim figures and Islamic historic events.

“The rebels preferred to stay where they weren’t welcome, and soon all the blocks in that area were mercilessly shelled and destroyed by government heavy artillery” – Abu Leila in Aleppo

There is also a big probability that the FSA is being provided with guns by third parties, such as Turkey or Qatar. However, this argument might prove wrong if we see the prices of machine guns and light arms triple in neighboring countries like Lebanon and Turkey. That indicates that those are being bought by the rebels to use them in their anti-government activities.

Kurds are fighting their own battles

Meanwhile, the Kurdish neighborhoods of Ashrafiyeh and Sheikh Maqsoud are under the control of armed members of the Kurdish PYD party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat). PYD enjoys a high level of popularity among the Kurdish population of Syria, basically because of its well-organized structure. It has the enough influence to create order within the Kurdish community by performing a quasi-governmental role inside the Kurdish-dominated regions. PYD is also known for its strong connection with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) rebel group in Turkey, which is considered a terrorist organization by the E.U. The PKK’s leader, Abdulah Ocalan, has been in jail in Turkey for 14 years.

The PYD cooperated with some local Arabic tribes and took over several cities in the Jazeera region of northeastern Syria. Most Kurdish-controlled regions, or neighborhoods inside big cities like Aleppo, are out of reach for both the FSA and the Syrian army. This fact brought more tensions with the rebels in recent days.

“Thousands of internally displaced people are now seeking refuge from one neighborhood to another in the city” – Abu Leila in Aleppo

Kurds have suffered more than most under the Assad regime, with high rates of poverty and their culture and traditions suppressed. Many have been denied Syrian citizenship for a long time. However, the political opposition to Assad isn’t ready to meet the demands of the Kurdish people, either. This is one of the major reasons why Kurds are keeping the warring sides out of Kurdish populated and controlled towns, and guaranteeing their rights and security with their own means.

Months of refuge from war may end

Regardless of the tension in the city and the apparent religious and ethnic divisiveness, a lot of young people from the new generation of Syrians are working together hand in hand to overcome the situation. One network of Christian, Muslim, Arab and Kurdish youth is working together to aid hundreds of refugees arriving, first from other towns, and now from inside Aleppo.

Thousands of internally displaced people are now seeking refuge from one neighborhood to another in the city. Since Aleppo and Damascus have avoided bloodbaths since the beginning of the uprising, these cities have become the only place inside the country for refugees arriving from the countryside and from other cities. Hundreds of thousands are trapped there waiting for their destiny to play out – a destiny that leaves them between a hammer and an anvil.


David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.

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